Monday, February 12, 2007

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Your Rorschach Middle East story of the week

USA Today's Barbara Slavin reports on how Iran's perceived rise is causing some unusual movements Arab-Israeli relations:

Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are making some of their most public overtures ever to Israel and American Jews in an effort to undercut Iran's growing influence, contain violence in Iraq and Lebanon and push for a Palestinian solution.

The high-profile gestures coincide with Saudi Arabia's lead role last week in brokering a deal for a coalition Palestinian government.

Last month, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's departing ambassador to the United States, attended a Washington reception sponsored by American Jewish organizations. The event honored a State Department diplomat appointed to combat anti-Semitism.

The appearance of a Saudi diplomat is "unprecedented," said William Daroff, Washington office director for the United Jewish Communities, which organized the reception.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up contacts with Israel and pro-Israel Jewish groups in the USA. The outreach has the Bush administration's blessing: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said six Gulf states and Egypt, Jordan and Israel are a new alignment of moderates to oppose extremists backed by Iran and Syria. She has said an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would weaken militants such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Contacts have intensified as part of a strategy meant to undercut extremists and build momentum for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, said Jamal Kashoggi, an aide to Saudi Prince Turki.

Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "What really concerns pro-U.S. Arab states is that Iran is setting the political agenda in the region."

Saudi and Gulf Arab contacts with Israelis and American Jews go back more than a decade but have never been so public.

Slavin's story comes out the same day Anthony Shadid analyzes rising Sunni-Shia tensions in the Washington Post (though do check out this Abu Arrdvark post to see whether the Sunni-Shia divide has been exaggerated.)

OK, time for your Rorschach test on international relations. What's the best way to interpret Slavin's story?

A) An exaggeration of a meaningless PR offensive;

B) The ultimate vindication of realism -- if the Saudis and Israelis choose to balance against a rising Iran, then perhaps the distribution of power is really the Most Important Thing in world politics;

C) The ultimate refutation of realism. After all, many realists assert that Israel is far more powerful than Iran -- so why are the Saudis bandwagoning rather than balancing?

D) Strong support for "The Israel Lobby" hypothesis -- the Saudis are cutting through the democratic rigamarole and negotiating with the cabal that runs U.S. foreign policy

E) Evidence to reject "The Israel Lobby" argument -- if American support for Israel is ostensibly undercutting America's standing in the Middle East, why the reaching out to Jews and Israelis?

F) Forget birth pangs, the new Middle East is here!! The Saudis are taking constructive steps to solve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, the Arabian peninsula seems to be in synch with moderate Arab regimes to thwart the Shia crescent.

G) Meet the new Middle East -- same as the old Middle East. I wonder if it bothers the administration that the Shia crescent states, as a group, can make a greater claim for democratic representativeness than the Sunni Middle East (admittedly, not a high threshhold).

H) The U.S. has eliminated moral hazard in the Middle East. By getting bogged down in Iraq, the American appetite for further Middle East adventurism has waned considerably. This actually forces the states in the region to make their own accommodations.

posted by Dan on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM


To really torture us, you should add:

I) All of the Above
J) None of the Above
K) Only Answers A and B are true

posted by: yagij on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

Clearly all of the above cannot be the correct answer.

posted by: Adrian on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

By brokering the Palestinian deal, Saudi is demonstrating will and serving notice to Iran that they intend to take action to protect Sunni and Arab interests in the region, and will talk to Israel or anybody else if they have to. Everyone must assume the Hamas-Fatah deal will fall apart instantly if not sooner, so none of it amounts to a hill of beans so far. So sign me up for a strong A, followed by H, B and maybe C, in descending order.

posted by: robert on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

H and B. Saudis are balancing against "threat". Now that USA is bogged down in Iraq and does not force democratization anymore, they are more worried about Iran than about USA.

posted by: Kerim Can on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]


The best thing America could do for Israel now is to get out of the Middle East, and let them stand independently.

An independent democracy only works if there's no superpower standing over it. Will make Israel more efficient too, and less troublesome for the region. They've been acting too big for their britches for much too long, thanks to US support.

posted by: anonymous on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

They're following the longstanding rule of middle eastern politics: identify your primary threat, then do whatever is necessary to to defend against it. which can lead to some very strange bedfellows. but, after all, if Iran and Israel could cooperate in the 1980s, why not Saudi and Israel now?

I) Score one for Stephen Walt!

posted by: anon on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]


When I took the SAT--and then the GMAT--there was at least one throw-away answer if you knew how to eliminate what.

You were correct in removing (I)

posted by: yagij on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

B and H. It will be a long time before the Middle East is truly peaceful. The US was the only outside power that could make a difference in the region. It is clear now that the US public does not have the stomach to make a commitment that would really change the essential nature of the area. Israel's aborted war with Hezbollah must have caused a lot of Sunni Arabs to wake up. Iran looks certain to acquire nukes and the US ain't gonna stop them. Perhaps Israel and Iran will eventually have a sort of MAD policy that will stave off nuclear war the way the US and USSR did. The Sunni Arab elites could then survive by playing the middle, tipping to one side or the other as needed. A tripartite balance of power might work out for a while if some way could be found to bottle up the terrorists. Bad news, though, for democracy or living a normal life without fear of terrorism.

posted by: Jim Linnane on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

The long-run danger here is that having non-representative, repressive governments in Sunni countries go against domestic public opinion by cooperating with Israel delegitimizes that policy. And the policy delegitimizes the governments. When the inevitable popular revolution/coups occur, things are likely to get ugly for Israeli-Arab relations. The Israelis will see this coming, which will make them even more hostile to democracy in the Arab world than they are now.

I will bet that Israel is a lot more popular among the mass of urban Iranians than it is among the mass of Saudis, just as the US is. We have countries with friendly governments and hostile populaces and countries with hostile governments and friendly populaces. So unless you think that the current regimes are immortal, it might not be good to get too cozy with them.

posted by: srp on 02.12.07 at 02:43 PM [permalink]

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